Vengeance is a pitch served cold (and lifeless)

Way back when, when Guerilla Cricket was barely an idea in the substance-addled brains of Nigel Walker and me, you may remember the 22 yards of rolled snot that was the Trent Bridge wicket for the first England v India Test of 2014.

The surface yielded 1,344 runs for the loss of just 29 wickets and petered out into a forgettable draw.

Forgettable of course unless you were Murali Vijay, who dawdled for 468 minutes in scoring 146.

Forgettable of course unless you were Bhuve Kumar and Mohammed Shami, who shared an Indian record last-wicket stand of 111.

Forgettable of course unless you were Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson, who went one better by combining for the overall Test record 10th-wicket stand of 198.

Forgettable of course unless you were Jimmy Anderson full stop as he sent a bookcase of records tumbling: highest score (81) by a No 11, longest innings (230 mins) by a Test No 11, the end of the longest wait (131 innings) for a maiden Test fifty.

All right, there was plenty memorable about the England v India Test at Trent Bridge in August 2014, but it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

So what to make of this pitch at Chepauk?

Shortly before the end of our coverage of the day from Chennai, amid the euphoria of England going through two sessions without losing a wicket (almost), a thought struck me as my fellow commentator, Anindya Dutta, learned author of best-selling cricket books galore, shook his head at this thoroughly untypical covering.

His assessment was shared by the Press Trust of India journalist whose copy adorns pretty much every paper and website in India: “The Chepauk track, with its red clay soil content, usually offers good bounce on the first day, which becomes variable as the cracks start opening and spinners come into play,” he wrote.

“But this was a track which was devoid of any pace, and edges were not even carrying half the distance to first slip or wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant.”

Such was India’s plight, he lamented, “that Rohit Sharma got his helmet and came up halfway to Ishant’s deliveries, which weren’t medium pace by any means”.

Hmm. This worried me – and indeed will probably worry me for the rest of the Test.

England had done everything right: their rejuvenated skipper had hit an almost fault-free third successive Test century, and Dom Sibley played his part to perfection, gorging on the confidence of a fifty in the second Test against Sri Lanka like Henry VIII at a Hampton Court buffet – observing every ball as if it were a curious but tasty morsel, juggling it for weight and quality, testing it for ripeness and succulence and finally savouring it for juiciness before despatch (through mid-wicket or down the cakehole, to extend the analogy).

The game plan was being expertly executed: to bat not just for runs, but for time. If England were all out for 400 in the day – as they once were during Duncan Fletcher’s reign in the Ashes at Edgbaston – they would have achieved only one part of that plan: they needed to use up sufficient hours at the crease to ensure that the break-up of the pitch more closely aligned with the India reply.

But, had he not been undone by a corker of a yorker that Jasprit Bumrah unleashed in the final over of the day, it is quite conceivable that we could have been watching Sibley himself for 468 mins or more; Jack Leach might have been dreaming of the century that eluded him against Ireland two summers ago, Bumrah might have been thinking of passing a highest Test score of 10 not out in 25 innings and Shabhaz Nadeem might have been considering that a decent outing with the bat – the bowler has a first-class century and seven fifties – would be a way of ensuring that, at 31, he gets a Test more than once every 16 months.

In his interviews afterwards, Root challenged his remaining batsmen to push on to 600, to 700, which seems all well and good. But what if, as Anindya Dutta suggests, this pitch is untypical – it has, after all, been curated by a groundsman producing his first Test pitch and who hinted that this would be a “much more English” surface.

What if the red clay soil not only continues to offer little bounce, what if the cracks fail to start opening and what if the edges continue to fall well short of their intended targets in the slip cordon?

Rather than a gripping illustration of the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs, the attacks and counterattacks of Test cricket, what if we are left with a dry squib of a contest, where 700 matches 650 for five, and those converts to the five-day format that the return of a series to terrestrial television hopes to grasp for the future, fail to be engaged?

It will be an opportunity lost – and damn hard going for the Guerillas. But don’t be surprised if in the India dressing-room one or two of them – perhaps even Virat Kohli, who contributed only nine of those 1,344 runs in two innings lasted just 45 minutes – will suppress a smile as they mark it down as payback for that monstrosity in Nottingham six and a half years ago.